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The New Soldier Field

The last time I was at a Bears game was September 2, 1979, at the old Soldier Field, one of the dullest games in NFL history, a 6-3 Bears win over the Packers. I remember coming back to the home of my friend who had taken me, to learn that the Cubs, who were marginally in contention that day, had lost their game to the Dodgers in Los Angeles 6-2 on a Davey Lopes grand slam in the bottom of the 9th.

Anyway, that's a digression. Jeff, who has both Cubs and Bears season tickets, offered me two for today's game, and wanting to see the new Soldier Field, I took my son Mark and hied on down to the lakefront.

First, I was glad that the weather was going to be at least decent; forecasts had some rain, but temperatures in the 50's, and it's been much worse at a lot of April Cub games. Of course, they don't allow umbrellas at any NFL game, so I brought a poncho, but didn't need it. The sun actually peeked through for a few minutes and the rain didn't start until after we got off the L train in the Loop for the car ride home.

It's fairly easy to get to the new stadium if you park downtown (I have a monthly pass at work, so parked there and took the train), and the L stop, though a bit far at Roosevelt and State, is easily walkable. The police have various places barricaded, so you have to walk a bit north, through Grant Park, then back south to the stadium. That's mistake #1, I think -- there should have been several more pedestrian underpasses to get out of the stadium, though I can imagine they didn't want any directly west of the place, as that would let thousands of pedestrians out in the new residential neighborhood. It's only a minor inconvenience.

About the stadium: the sightlines are great. The photo posted above (apologies for the graininess; that's a camera-phone photo) was taken from the seats, second row, second level in the southwest end zone. You can see clearly, and nothing is obstructed. I'd hate to be high up in the upper level; it looks Ballmall-like in its steepness, but even from there, from a football standpoint, you can see everything. The fact that the "spaceship" (or "toilet bowl", if you prefer) design completely encloses the stadium accomplishes two things: first, it cuts whatever wind there is down to virtually nothing inside. Even the 55-degree temperature never felt as cold as such a temp does at Wrigley Field. Second, it makes the place really loud. If the Bears ever have a good team, this will make for a huge homefield advantage. The fans in the third level in the corners have already figured out that you can make it even louder by banging on the steel facing that's on the corners of the upper deck.

The rest of the place is fairly pedestrian. It's very concrete-and-steel, and though they've put a lot of Bears history and memorabilia inside, it still feels kind of sterile. Food choices are pretty spare, at least the ones I found: your basic hotdogs, pizza and beer. There is one fairly large souvenir store at the northwest corner, but the lines, even an hour before game time, were horrendously long, and so was the line at the one souvenir stand I found on the middle levels.

Walking among the colonnades (which you couldn't do at the old stadium -- they were shut off to the public, now open) kind of gives you a feeling of being in a museum -- you can see the seating bowl above, and the old concrete columns, which haven't really been touched, just spruced up a little bit, feel like they've been there for centuries, not just 75 years.

The JumboTron boards, one at each end of the field, keep up with the game action if you are too far from the field, but I rarely looked at them. The way they kind of stick out from the upper levels, they appear (especially the north one) to be leaning over, which is a very strange effect. Though there are plenty of large game and play clocks, there isn't a single time-of-day clock in the place, which is kind of disconcerting. On the facade, where they keep the downs and score, there is a rudimentary out-of-town scoreboard, but they keep switching off of it to show relatively useless information like "Bears FG % - 2 for 2 - 100%". Like we couldn't figure that out for ourselves. Most of the scoreboard and PA announcements, of course, are filled with advertising. Geez, even the national anthem is sponsored, which I found tasteless.

Twenty-four years later, I don't remember whether they did this back then, but the fans amuse themselves when the PA announcer says "There's a time out!" Everyone replies, "Where?", and then the PA guy replies, "On the field!"

Funny a couple of times, I suppose.

As for the game itself, a 20-7 win for the Bears over the San Diego Chargers, the Bears' second win in a row, the Bears actually looked like a real football team, though how much of that is them and how much is the fact that the Chargers really look horrible, is debatable. The only life that the Chargers showed was when 41-year-old Doug Flutie took over at quarterback, leading San Diego to its only touchdown. He got a warm ovation from Bears fans who remember his years here. And it was 38-year-old Chris Chandler having a good day, 21-for-30 passing for 224 yards (his first 200-yard day in almost two years), leading the Bears down the field nearly at will through a defense that looked like it wanted to be anywhere but at Soldier Field today.

I couldn't find a box score with attendance figures, but it didn't look like too many no-shows today, maybe 2,000 or so, which would have made the crowd just under 60,000.

The new stadium is a definite improvement over the old, but then, a circus tent would have been better than the smelly, dirty mess that Soldier Field had become by 2001. The sightlines are great, the access OK, the amenities average. I give it a "very good" rating, not excellent, but a good addition to the public institutions of our city.

I just wish they had spent the extra money to put a retractable roof on the place, which would have made it suitable for dozens more events every year.